Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images
If you come out in the next 3 minutes,” the e-mail reads, “just look for the SUV trapped in 1983 and rocking to ‘Gloria.’ ” Philippe Reines is BlackBerrying from an Uber car idling outside Union Station in Washington, D.C. Sure enough, there’s the black Suburban, shining in the afternoon sun amid many impatient taxis. Reines, Hillary Clinton’s most visible spokesman and the guardian of her public persona, is sprawled in the back passenger seat with the window a few inches down. “We’re going to drive in circles,” he says.
In person, Reines is none of the things his reputation for tenacity would suggest. He has, today at least, forgone the Brooks Brothers uniform of the D.C. Power Male in favor of a navy long-sleeved polo and chinos. His thatch of dark hair is not particularly styled. The BlackBerry sits in the armrest cup holder but, in another defiance of convention, Reines doesn’t check it at all. As the Suburban begins to roll down Constitution Avenue, he is relaxed and undefensive. If the air of casualness is itself a form of the image control for which he is so well known, then it is working.
Reines (pronounced RYE-niss), originally a product of the Upper West Side, has worked as Hillary’s chief personal defender since joining her Senate office in 2002, moving with her to the State Department in 2009 and frequently making news himself for his colorful and sometimes outlandish tactics. The latest example: In January, at an event with auto dealers, Clinton admitted that she hadn’t driven a car since 1996, which prompted a BuzzFeed reporter to e-mail Reines seven questions about other modern things that Clinton might not be up on. Had she ever bought anything on the Internet? Eaten at Chipotle? Swiped a MetroCard? Reines responded with a sneering e-mail that repeatedly referred to “BuLLfeed” and linked to various images of his patron appearing to do some (but not all) of the activities mentioned. BuzzFeed posted the whole exchange, which made its way to the scolds on cable TV. This kind of outing happens to Reines all the time, suggesting, perhaps, that he ought to know better.
“It’s not a great dynamic,” he says with a rueful smile. “I’ve gone way past one’s healthy shelf life” as an everyday spokesman, “which shows through on an annual basis in something that I do or say.” There is only thin traffic on the capital’s streets; soon we are speeding along I-395 and over the bridge to Virginia.* “I try to speak to reporters as little as possible, just for my own personal health and wellness,” he says. “I think that’s a shared feeling. It’s not a lot of reporters who are like, ‘Oh, great, I get to ask the Clinton organization a difficult question now; I’m sure this is gonna be the highlight of my week.’ ”
As any Washington spinmeister knows, the worst mistake is one that underscores the perpetrator’s key flaws, perceived or real, which is why the latest BuzzFeed episode stings: It echoes an exchange about Benghazi with BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings, back in 2012, in which Reines told Hastings—again via e-mail—to “fuck off” and “have a good life.”
“The ‘fuck off’ thing was terrible,” Reines says, not because he was aggressive with Hastings—who died in a car crash last year—but because “I could not have been more disrespectful of the tragedy” of the attack in Libya. “It was a Sunday morning when I wrote it,” Reines recalls. “Monday is when it hit. Tuesday, waking up and reading the clips of just headline after headline after headline that contained the words Benghazi, ambassador, four Americans killed, Reines, Clinton, fuck off. It was just so disrespectful,” he says. “I don’t mind telling people to fuck off. Someone wants to know, you know, ‘We hear her shoe size is really five and a half, not six.’ I mean, fuck off.”
The Potomac is visible through the roadside trees, and Reines grows quieter. “I’ve always thought that to the extent that I do a good job, it’s because I’ve got different speeds,” he says. “And it’s harder as life goes on. I feel like I’m a 42-year-old pitcher who should have left at 37, and now I’ve only got one pitch: That’s all anyone knows.”
Extremism in defense of Hillary is no vice, however, and Reines’s boss is sticking with him. He recently co-founded a consulting firm, Beacon Global Strategies, but he still works for Clinton as a second full-time job. And if she runs again—he claims he doesn’t know if she will—Reines will be onboard. We have reached the end of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and the driver turns around in front of the gates of Mount Vernon and heads back toward the District.
A 2016 campaign, if Reines has any say, will be run more sensibly than 2008’s: “I think she’d be better off not hiring anyone over the age of 35,” he says. “And I think they should all be on a barge or on some kind of orbital platform that can only transmit to the Earth and not receive from it. You just want a roomful of people having good thoughts and good ideas and then not knowing what happened. You come back to Earth the day after the election.”
A space-station-like campaign hub is the kind of radical efficiency Reines tends to go for. He has placed parental locks on all eleven of the televisions in his firm’s new headquarters, so that no one can watch MSNBC, the network that goes after him hardest. On Clinton’s foreign trips, he would travel with a foldable toothbrush that fit more easily into his pocket, eliminating the need for a carry-on bag. And for nearly two years now, he has gone completely cashless. “I haven’t withdrawn a single piece of currency in any form” since June 2012, he says. Instead of a wallet he carries a card holder—but no ATM card. Cabs, one of the last services for which Reines found he needed actual banknotes, have been replaced with Uber rides, the most recent of which is now drawing to a close at the corner of 21st and L Streets, in front of Beacon’s offices.
The next day an e-mail arrives from Reines containing the electronic record of his final ATM withdrawal, at 3:57 p.m. on June 20, 2012. “1 year, 7 months, 17 days,” the subject line reads.* Just making sure the story is accurate.
*This article has been corrected to show that the author and Reines took I-395, not I-495 and that his final ATM withdrawal was on June 20, 2012, not June 12.
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91 Minutes With Philippe Reines